Aged and Charming

When “Blood Fever” infects B’Elanna Torres in Season 3 of Star Trek: Voyager, Tom Paris…

…an otherwise arrogant, conceited, womanizing, immature little dork-of-a-man-child, finally manages to become a complex and charming character. “Irresistible?” “I wouldn’t go that far.” Still, the flirtatious and oftentimes shallow personality of Tom Paris we’ve seen thus far into the series blossoms unexpectedly into something resembling the nurturing wisdom of a mature adult.

Watching this episode again for the third time, at the age of 30, I found myself drawn to his decided and disciplined reserve in a way I wasn’t aware of when I first saw this episode a few years ago. (Yes – I was about 26 when I first watched STV but don’t judge me – I was raised an Original Series gal who loved TNG and was only 12 years old when we stopped having cable in my house…so…yeah. Thanks, Netflix!)

Watching this episode now, harkening back to my early 20s when I had a bit of a problem with binge-drinking alcohol, I couldn’t help but realize that I had put myself in B’Elanna’s situation many times over. Gorged with spirits and liquor, I have dozens of memories of ending up drunk and desperate – utterly dependent on someone else for my well-being and care. Sadly, not all of those encounters found me alone with someone as respectful and mature as Tom Paris is in this episode. However, there were two instances where the guy did take the high-road, making those two memories crisp and clear in my heart’s eye (if not in the details, at least in the feelings they inspired).

The first of those memories was with someone who quickly became my best friend. I have a vivid and emotional recollection of being so drunk that I spilled the water he brought me after drunkenly assuming the glass would stand up straight on my mattress. The water rushed all over my side of the bed and all over me. I hardly noticed. Still, J was there to scoop me up with a nurturing “whoa-!” and pull me into his warm, confident arms, where we slept for the rest of the night. Doubtless there were several other nights like that between the two of us, but none that I can remember.. Sleeping on the top of the covers each night while I snuggled beneath was one of the hallmarks of our sweet, innocent friendship. Never did he go the Tom Paris of Seasons 1+2 route and take advantage of my pathetic self. Always, he was there to care and caretake, even fielding calls in the middle of the night from a hysterical and needy me declaring my undying love for him. His response? Always a firm and thoughtful, “I’m sorry.” Did I ever find out for certain what that year of “I’m sorry”‘s meant – no, no I never did. I ruined that friendship before it could even truly begin…but that’s another story entirely, for a different time.

Suffice it to say that I can relate to B’Elanna. I can relate to her neediness and her angst in that desperate, embarrassing moment. There’s something extra excruciating about throwing yourself at someone who wants you and yet being rejected anyway due to logic and reason. For some reason, it’s extra hurtful. There’s something terribly painful about rejection when someone seems accepting of everyone else. It’s like, “hey, I’m here – why not me?” cuts like a knife that is serrated and dirty – rather than the sanitized tools of Tinder or Tumbler or whatever such dating sites (I have no idea if both of those are dating sites, I just THINK they are..) that seek to facilitate rejection without you ever having to find out about it. I remember feeling low-key rejected by this guy for years, even as we continued taking trips together where he’d directly ask the hotel clerk for “just one bed, please”. All the trips, all the drinks, all the movies, secluded walks in secluded woods – and not a single kiss or hand-hold. *le sigh* All of that closeness, the intimacy, Thanksgiving dinner with his family, me eventually dating someone else and staying friends, him dating other people and us hanging out…low-key rejection through all of it.

At least in Tom and B’Elanna’s case, they eventually form a stronger bond and begin dating, continue fighting. It’s charming and sweet, although it is also constrained very much to Voyager and the fact that they are stranded in the Delta Quadrant with little other choice in partners. This is something made very obvious in the episode in question, “Blood Fever,” when Vorik explains why B’Elanna should choose him because she really doesn’t have a lot of other choices. He even goes so far as to say that he knows that Klingon’s like it rough and that there aren’t a lot of people on the ship who could probably handle and reciprocate her needs like he can, as a Vulcan. This is something that isn’t explored very much outside of its brief mentions in the Original Series, but – like I said – I’m quite familiar with TOS and feel confident in my assertion that Klingons, with their unbridled and radical passion for life’s pains and pleasures, might make ideal partners for Vulcans during their pon farr, but really not at any other time..

What’s perhaps the most intriguing about where this post has taken us is that, of all the characters on Star Trek, the one I could probably have most identified with up through my 20s was definitely B’Elanna Torres. (What’s made a bit worse about this comparison is how several sites have commentated about B’Elanna’s character being a stereotype of the “spicy Latina” trope…and I happen to be Chicana, but none of my sisters or mis tías/cousins would fit the stereotype, so…aaannnyywaayy..) I was quick to temper, often innovative, and annoyed at other people’s seeming incompetence. I could relate to her attempts at conformity and yet deep seated panic from feeling like she’d never truly fit in even if she really wanted to. There’s some kind of pride about being different, and yet a sense of emotional and existential isolation that results from that differentness. It’s almost as if that static-annoyance/anger combination she emotes is really just a simmering shield for constant tinge of intense loneliness. I’d like to think that, as I’ve aged, I’ve become a bit more like Jadzia Dax than B’Elanna Torres, but perhaps that’s being a bit hopeful.

Okay – so what was intriguing at all about that last paragraph? The fact that, even as I have found B’Elanna relatable, I have always found Vulcans to be extremely sexy and attractive. Their stone cold intellect and selfless logic has always appealed to me – especially considering what we find out about the true depth of Vulcan emotionality from both Spock, who is part human, and from the disease suffered by Spock’s father, Sarek. Rather than being emotionless and unfeeling, Vulcan’s feel a great deal and perceive a great deal of emotional nuance more than other races. It is simply the case that they find discipline, reserve, and rationality to be more desirable than unbridled emotion. I must say that, as someone who has spent nearly two decades struggling with her unwieldy emotions, the idea of being able to sit back and observe situations without being engulfed by them has felt very attractive indeed. Also knowing that the dam of emotions could burst at any moment is extremely titillating as someone who is part Klingon. *wink-wink* There’s always been something lustily satisfying about being able to push someone over the edge of their calculated control. Yes, perhaps it’s the knowledge that total control is a facade. Perhaps also it’s the comfort of commiseration, seeing the flaws in another’s demeanor.

Back to Tom and B’Elanna. Tom and his bro-ish doofishness is something I outwardly cringe at each time I’ve rewatched Voyager. His shameless objectification of women and disregard for Harry’s personal values is something I audibly protest in nearly every episode. And yet, here, when a woman he’s had his eye on for some time begins throwing herself (literally) at him alone in a cave, he seem to magically grow up into a person with self-respect and dignity. How the heck did that happen?! Not a few episodes prior, he’s seen oggling “the locals” in a holodeck Lūʻau (SO much wrong with this kind of cultural appropriation in Star Trek, not to mention the entire US-Hawaii socio-political relationship to begin with…) and trying to force Harry into something he doesn’t want to do. A couple episodes later, he understands consent? So, are we to take away from this that he doesn’t allow Harry to refuse him because he doesn’t respect him, but he respects B’Elanna? Is it her anger, sarcasm, and open hostility that force him to respect her? Is he the kind of person who mixes up respect and fear? Why is the man who is always so confident at meeting his own needs somehow stumped about how to act when a beautiful and confident woman wants him without provocation?

A couple episodes before the lūʻau fiasco, we see Tom Paris strangely not quite fitting in to his own time period in “Future’s End”. Here, he looks like a homeschooled Christian kid trying to audition for a side character in a Kid’s Bop album. Just, awkward. In any case, he instantly strikes up some random romance with Sarah Silverman, playing a character who’s supposed to be smart. Yet, before a couple hours have passed, she’s kissed Paris and tried to invite him to hang out? Yea – no. Lame. Unlikely. She’s smokin’ hot, intelligent, and spunky. Why, why, WHY would she go for someone like Tom Paris, let alone, TOM PARIS? Egh. It just makes no sense, whatsoever. It reminds me of the absurdity of James Bond or James Kirk or Will Riker just magnetizing these women like helpless animals into their demanding and dominating care. IT MAKES NO SENSE. It’s as if these women have NO REAL MIND of their own and are more or less props designed to play up the male character’s hypermasculine and yet lacking egos.

When it comes to Tom and B’Elanna, however, there seems to be a true chemistry there…one which I have yet to explain. Tom is a bit of a bumbling idiot who does his best and yet still clearly depends on the approval of others in order to validate himself. He’s played up as handsome and yet has an obvious receding hairline and not much of a body to speak of. He’s a bit clonky, though not as clonky as Riker, and appears to have been the direct inspiration for the character of “Guy” in Galaxy Quest – no real personality to speak of, but blends in well enough to flesh out some episodes where no other characters would fit. B’Elanna is a skilled, knowledgeable, capable engineer who understands complex systems in a holistic way few others seem unable to comprehend. She’s fit, strong, sharp-witted, and even those horrendously bushy eyebrows don’t take any of her beauty away. She could have anyone on the ship, probably. Heck, she could even seduce a Vulcan! And yet, she chooses Paris? Is it his thickly masked sensitive side which appeals to her? Is it the odd appeal of knowing he could never actually win her on his own, giving her some kind of control in the relationship? Is it a lack of self-respect that drives her into his arms, when she’s so desperate for love and affection that she tosses herself down in the gutter in the hopes that she’ll be swept up with his usual trash?

Well, one thing’s for certain here, no matter how inexplicable Tom and B’Elanna’s romance might be, it’s nevertheless real and undeniable. Very much like my own dear Tom Paris, who is not at all like a Vulcan (and not even a bit of a Klingon), has stood faithfully by me and my B’Elanna side all of these years, I suppose I am simply grateful for the goodness and emotional vulnerability you show up with day after day. You’ve given up your awkward playboy days and your awkward playboy ways in order to seduce me, and for nearly 6 years now, I’ve abided. Thank you for being the second instance of someone recognizing what consent is in my life, taking me home on Halloween 2014 and keeping me safe despite myself. Thank you for being the romantic version of Tom Paris in my life, for being the one to push back and stand up for yourself when I’m annoyed and afraid of being lonesome. Thanks for promising to love me for many more years to come; I promise to stay faithful – and never bite your face.

Cheers, to Tom Paris.

12 November 2020

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